Since I left Los Angeles for the Bay 10 years ago, what Ive missed most is the driving. Maybe thats because turning 16 in L.A. felt like gaining the (car) keys to freedom, even if that only meant lunch runs to In-N-Out and late-night cruises through the Westside. Now that Im back in L.A. once a week for school, Ive been reacquainting myself with the Southlands asphalt sea. Avoiding the cramped north-south routes, Ive been doing a lateral slide along the 60, the 10 and the 210, drifting between Riverside (my class), Arcadia (my bed) and Santa Monica (my friends). On a good day, thats at least 90 minutes from end to end, and with only a working tape player (but no radio) in the car, Ive had to refresh my personal soundtrack every week.
Normally Id roll to hip-hop, but lately Ive found a new affinity for funk on the road. Theres something about the raw, gritty drive of 45 funk sides to impel me toward a CHP confrontation, and the more languid, soulful compositions ease me into a gangster lean. Whats ended up in heavy rotation has been breaktapes, curious bastard children of the hip-hop mixtape and the funk compilation. Led by DJcollectors like Seattles Conmen, Philadelphias Phill Da Soulman and BostonN.Y.s Kon & Amir, most of these mixtapes use hip-hop as the common sonic denominator but slide blackward into the sample sources of rap music. For example, on Soulmans superior Neva Stop Diggin tape, he organizes his samples by theme, grouping together a half-dozen loops used by Mos Def, another couple by Ghostface Killah, or assembles a monster megamix of his juiciest drum breaks. Few songs play for more than a few seconds -- once the funky loop ends, its on to the next episode, and its not unusual to hear over 100 different songs packed in.
The problem is that these tapes target obsessive trainspotters far more than music aficionados. Hey, I like my bombastic breakbeats as much as the next cat, but sometimes I actually want to hear the entire song, not just a four-bar tease. The musical logic is reductive, presuming that the only worthwhile part of a song is whats been sampled. Moreover, record collectors are loath to reveal the secrets theyve spent so much time hoarding, so they play a game of show but dont tell, meaning you never get track listings either. Most break tapes are a nice novelty for about 15 minutes, but youre almost always left wanting more.
Thats why I appreciate Chairman Mao and Citizen Kanes Selects 001 mix-CD. They toss out all the rules of the conventional break tape, playing complete songs, including a partial track-listing (song titles, but no artists), and while most of their selections are obscure, they dont simply pander to whats been sampled -- the only criteria Mao and Kane choose with is what sounds good to them. The result is a 74-minute, uptown-Saturday-night warehouse party, mixing everything from 60s Southern swamp funk, to 70s bounce, rock-n-skate jams, to 80s sweet synthesizer soul. Reviving the spirit of Britains infamous Northern Soul parties of the 60s, Mao and Kane blow your mind out with little-known gems, but blow your back out too with dozens of grooves to get your waistline in sync with the bassline.
Lastly, L.A.s own resident loop troop, Breakestra, have just released their new The Live Mix Part 2 (Stones Throw). Led by their versatile bassist, Miles Tackett, the nine-piece Breakestra band cruises through over two dozen classic funk, soul and jazz songs. Like the DJ tapes, Breakestras Part 2 aims for familiarity with the hip-hop generation, choosing to play many songs made familiar through samples, but the bands ability to make instant segues with just a brass blast or drum drop gives them a flexibility even the most deft turntablist couldnt pull off. They create exquisite moments, like where the slick jazz groove of Stanley Turrentines Mr. Clean explodes into the breakbeat barrage of Eddie Bos New Orleans cooker Hook and Sling, and before you know it, theyre resurrecting the spirit of Sly Stones soul anthem Sing a Simple Song.
While youre left wanting for more of their original material (besides the included Getcho Soul Together), Breakestra can liven any dull mood by invoking the sound and spirit of everyone from Clyde Stubblefield (the original funky drummer), to keyboardists like Eugene McDaniels and Galt MacDermot, to guitarist Leo Nocentelli of the Meters. Their music may even save my life someday -- rather than surrender to the inevitable rage of L.A.s crazy streets, every time I throw on this stuff I just unwind and have myself a funky good time.